From left, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are seen during a visit to a housing project in Hooper Bay, Alaska, on Aug. 12 as part of the administration's rural tour. President Barack Obama promised to pay attention to problems of rural America, and four of his cabinet secretaries traveled Wednesday to parts of Alaska that couldn't get much more rural.
Story last updated at 8/19/2009 - 5:58 pm
ANCHORAGE - Four secretaries in the Obama cabinet had their eyes opened to unique Alaska problems in a trip to rural communities, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich said Thursday.
The cabinet members - Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan - on Wednesday visited Alaska as part of the administration's "Rural Tour." Begich acted as guide in Bethel, a transportation and government hub for southwest villages, and Hooper Bay, a mostly Yu'pik Eskimo village of 1,160 on the Bering Sea about 500 miles west of Anchorage.
Both communities are well off the power grid and the road system. The chance of fog delayed the secretaries' trip by three hours and a mechanical problem with their airplane cost them another hour. Once they reached the communities, they saw firsthand how high transportation costs get in the way of addressing social needs.
In Hooper Bay, they toured a housing project and learned that 50 percent of the cost of the modular units was for shipping. They also were told that the nearest hospital was a $420 plane ride away, and continuing to specialists in Anchorage meant a $1,000 ticket.
"You could feel the secretaries in shock," Begich said. "One leans over to me and says, 'I could fly to Europe for half that.'"
He hopes to continue educating policy makers with a similar tour by fellow senators at the end of the month.
Begich says that Alaska to date has enjoyed the highest per capita benefits in the nation from the stimulus bill - $1,024. At the end of two years, he said, about $1.4 billion will have poured into the state.
He turned aside a question on whether Alaska projects and programs are receiving more scrutiny because of the high profile of former Gov. Sarah Palin.
When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, Begich said, the priorities will be health care, energy, climate change and appropriations.